Story at a glance:

  • Daylighting, insulation, and acoustic design can improve health among occupants of a building.
  • Both wall insulation and acoustic design can limit the harmful impacts of noise pollution.
  • Antimicrobial materials like quartz, copper, and silver promote hygiene.

Our health is largely dependent on environmental factors like our access to quality water, air, and daylight. When we consider this, it’s easy to see how important it is for designers to ask, “How can architecture improve health?”

Various design elements—like choosing a nontoxic paint or incorporating biophilic design—can boost occupants’ wellness within a space. Many of these design elements reduce stress, germs, and noise within a space, allowing occupants to feel at ease.

Have you been asking: how can architecture improve health? Here are some tips from the experts.

Use daylighting to brighten a space

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Tubular daylighting devices provide a bright, calm and friendly environment for patients entering any health care facility. Photo courtesy of Solatube International, Inc.

Growing research tells us how important daylight is to maintaining wellness, Neall Digert, vice president of Solatube International, Inc., told gb&d. Studies have found that daylight not only saves energy, but it also keeps occupants alert, promotes a feeling of safety, and even works as a disinfectant.

Scientists at the Lighting Research Center have reported that daylit environments increase occupant productivity and comfort. They help regulate human circadian rhythms and the production of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. Serotonin, known as the happy hormone, leaves us feeling more energized, happy, and well-rested.

Studies have shown that patients who are treated in health care facilities with daylight are found to have less pain, therefore requiring less pain medication, and heal faster, subsequently having shorter hospital stays and overall lower medical costs.

UV light has been used as a disinfectant for decades. But now a 2018 study demonstrates that rooms exposed to daylight have fewer germs, a similar effect as UV light.

Insulate your walls 

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Greenfiber’s wall insulation starts as a plant material, is made into paper, and reused as insulation. Photo courtesy of Greenfiber

Excess noise can have harmful effects on your sleep, stress levels, and general health. Wall insulation can help with all of this. Plus, when you insulate your walls, the temperature of a building will become equalized, meaning your body won’t need to adjust as you move from one room to the next, according to Jason Todd, director of market development and building science at Greenfiber, an insulation company.

A noisy home can impact sleep quality, which can lead to health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Greenfiber’s SANCTUARY Blow-In or Spray-Applied Insulation can reduce noise pollution that comes from both inside and outside the house.

Beyond sleeping problems, excess noise exposure can also have a harmful effect on both children and adults. Noise exposure has been linked to poorer reading comprehension and standardized test scores in children, according to a 2018 World Health Organization analysis. A study published in The American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2018 concluded that as many as 14% of cases of hypertension and 9% of cases of high cholesterol were potentially a result of noise exposure.

Choose a nontoxic paint to improve IAQ

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Brands like Clare Paint and Behr’s Premium Plus paints are GREENGUARD Gold Certified, meaning they emit lower levels of toxins, specifically formaldehyde emissions. Photo courtesy of Behr.

Paint colors can breathe life into interior spaces. But many paints also offgas harmful toxins. Therefore it’s important to choose a nontoxic paint brand that is low in VOCs—the harmful carbon-containing chemicals that vaporize at room temperature and harm air quality. Over time these chemicals are released into the air through a process called off-gassing.

Nontoxic paint—labeled with Low VOC, VOC-Free, or No-VOC—can never be guaranteed to be 100% nontoxic. However, water-based paints are almost always going to be a safer option over oil-based paints with high VOCs.

Brands like Clare Paint come in a variety of bright colors that will liven up a space, and even offer delivery to your door.

Go touchless to limit the spread of germs

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Bradley’s Express Lavatory Systems include hands-free soap and sanitizer dispensers, along with touchless sinks. Courtesy of Bradley Corp.

How can architecture improve health? In spaces with high-touch surfaces, motion detection may be the answer. Touchless technology promotes a clean environment by limiting the need to make contact with buttons, door handles, sink faucets, and more.

“In a touchless office, the door can be automated using sensors at the entrance or near-field communication between a door access point and a user’s phone,” Robert Hemmerdinger, the chief sales and marketing officer for Delta Controls, said in a previous article for gb&d. “People won’t need to touch the door handle to gain access to the space. Once they’ve entered, lighting can be adjusted automatically, and temperature preferences can be input with the user’s phone.”

When it comes to bathroom design, hands-free faucets, soap dispensers, and hand dryers eliminate the mess of paper towels and reduce the number of touchpoints in a restroom. Excel Dryer’s XLERATOR® hand dryer also has the added bonus of boasting a 75% reduced carbon footprint compared to paper towels and traditional hand dryers.

Incorporate inherently anti-bacterial products

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Vistaprint’s LEED Platinum office includes antibacterial surfaces such as glass table tops and high-performance textiles. Photo courtesy of Margulies Perruzzi

Dianne Dunnell, former director of interior design at Margulies Perruzzi, recommends selecting inherently anti-bacterial products like quartz, silver, or copper, for building materials.

Metal ion products like pure silver and copper have been shown to be effective against bacteria and certain viruses. Some studies show the COVID-19 virus can survive on copper up to four hours versus stainless steel, which can carry the virus for 10.

Both soapstone and quartz surfaces are highly resistant to bacteria and stains because they are nonporous.

Various textiles, paints, and laminates offer antibacterial finishes—but be mindful, the antimicrobial qualities of these materials are intended to preserve the products’ surface from damage caused by microorganisms rather than prevent the spread of infection, Dunnell wrote in a previous gb&d article.

The best bet when it comes to an antimicrobial surface is to go with copper, silver, Soapstone, or quart, Dunnell said.

Add biophilic design to reduce stress

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Biophilic designs, like large living walls, add beauty and wellness to offices, universities, restaurants, and more. Photo courtesy of Sagegreenlife

Studies show that incorporating plants in interior design can improve indoor air quality and reduce stress, promoting the health of both the environment and people.

Even simply adding a few potted plants can have positive physiological effects, including reduced stress and increased productivity, according to Kenneth Freeman, the head of innovation at Ambius, a prominent company in sustainable commercial interior and exterior design.

For designers looking for a more permanent solution, a large living green wall or plants installed on a trellis panel, like those from greenscreen, can give your space a “wow” factor.

At the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore, plants and water features are built into the building to contribute to wellness. “With Khoo Teck Puat, we see that biophilic design elements and attributes should not only be considered as part of the design process, but also as part of the healing process,” architect Stephen Kieran told gb&d.

Mitigate noise with proper acoustic design

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When placed on the ceiling, FSorb’s Quietgrid cellular clouds can effectively control sound with as little as 25% overall coverage. Photo courtesy of FSorb

We’ve all been there—a noisy restaurant that makes it hard to have a conversation, a crowded cafe with conflicting noises, or a bustling stadium so loud you miss the call. Competing noises make it nearly impossible to converse with others or follow along. Acoustic design can help limit these frustrations caused by noise pollution within and outside of a space.

Situational acoustic design uses various tactics and materials to address where the loudest noise occurs in a space, Doug Bixel of FSorb previously told gb&d. Acoustic design may make use of separating panels, thoughtful seating configurations, and even fabric walls.

A great tool in situational acoustic design is to place panels in between and/or above specifically noisy areas. These can create a break in sound from one area to the next. At its essence, the panel absorbs sound from the noise source. This is a great solution to the headache inducing noise caused by other collaborative activities.